A fast-growing and influential network of technological thinkers and groups borrow concepts from religion and spirituality while often seeing themselves in competition with traditional faiths, according to Abou Farman of the City University of New York.
At a Columbia University conference on spirituality in late May attended by RW, Farman presented a paper on what he called “informatic futurists,” a network of transhumanists who believe that humans can transcend their limits through technology; artificial intelligence enthusiasts; and “singularitarians” who believe that a computerized “super-intelligence” will replace the human mind. These different groups hold to the worldview that the universe is constituted by and through information and that the use of information technology can be a way of “surpassing the limitations of biology and ushering in the next stage in evolution.” These groups and movements have their background in the technology boom of the 1990s in Silicon Valley.
Although informatic futurists are usually secularists and naturalists, some proponents promote what could be called a “secular spirituality.” Teresem, a Florida-based group dedicated to achieving immortality through nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, and its founder, Martine Rothblatt, use language that is “spiritual even New Age—the reach for authenticity and origins, the revelation, the projection of unity and inclusiveness, the appeals to energy and immortality,” Farman said. Rothblatt disavows supernatural explanations, yet uses spiritual language to buttress her idea that technology has a definite direction and purpose. Some do not see an inevitable conflict between transhumanism and religion.
In 2009 the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pistoia in Italy held a week-long seminar on the subject, which drew both transhumanist support and criticism. More typically, informatic futurists seek to compete with and eventually overturn traditional religious institutions. William Sims Bainbridge, a prominent sociologist of religion and pioneer of this movement, has argued for the need for “really aggressive, attractive space religions … meeting the emotional needs of different segments of our population, driving traditional religions and retrograde cults from the field.” Such ideas have been taken up by Giulio Prisco, an Italian transhumanist activist and former physicist, who established the Order of Cosmic Engineers.
The goal of the order is to “permeate our universe with benign intelligence, building and spreading it from inner space to outer space and beyond.” Farman says that the informatic futurists are gaining influence in mainstream society. In his position at the National Science Foundation, Bainbridge has organized a government-sponsored conference on the “convergence” or unification of nanotechnology, biotechnology, informatics and cognitive science. Singularity thinkers have found a welcome at the U.S. space agency, NASA.
A recent NASA publication attempts to link socio-biological views of cultural evolution to physics and astronomy, arguing for the need for a “cosmic consciousness.” Farman cites the publication as claiming that the cosmos is “intertwined with human destiny … impinging on (and arguably essential to) questions normally reserved for religion and philosophy.” The informatic futurist challenge may change the relationship between religion and secularism: “secular humanism and religion will find each other closer than ever before as the informatic cosmologists try and move away from both gods and humans, as well as from the earth itself.”